These are bleak days for progressive Israelis. The offensive on Gaza, which should never have been launched, has left a trail of death, trauma, destruction and despondency. The after-effects of those horrible three weeks are most obvious in Gaza, where the monumental task of emotional and physical rehabilitation is an Israeli as well as a global responsibility. They are also evident within Israel, where bravado and intolerance threaten to eat away at the country’s democratic core and consume its internal moral compass.
When my phone started ringing on December 27 with the news that Israel was bombarding Gaza, I was shocked but far from surprised. I had opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 because I feared that a pullback without an agreement on the transfer of authority would breed political anarchy. And indeed, the ascendance of Hamas and its takeover of Gaza immediately afterward verified the foolishness of the unilateral approach. The Israeli siege on Gaza, accompanied by rocket attacks on Sderot and targeted killings by Israeli forces, fueled an escalation of violence that transformed Gaza into an enormous, impoverished, dangerously armed cage governed by religious extremists. Its continuous victimization, far from exposing Hamas, has sustained its dominance.
The failure of the six-month truce, brought about by the continuous smuggling of arms into Gaza and Israel’s violation of its commitment to open the crossings, was predictable. Sadly and inexcusably, so too was the timing of Israel’s assault: during the last days of the Bush administration and on the eve of yet another general election in Israel. Under immense public pressure to “do something,” which saw Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu soar in the polls, the Olmert-Livni-Barak governing trio banded together to salvage their reputations and perhaps their careers under the guise of protecting Israel and reasserting its deterrent capacity.
All these thoughts and more raced through my mind in those first hours as I watched Israeli fighter planes surgically pulverizing buildings and their occupants on Israeli television. I rebelled, almost instinctively, against the resort to massive force. Regardless of the immense provocation rendered by the rockets showered on the Negev, Israel had done little to exhaust other options. The post-Annapolis talks during the preceding year were marred by the fundamental asymmetry between Palestinians and Israelis and Israel’s unwillingness to address the roots of the conflict. And the shortsightedness of the military initiative was infuriating; too many people believed that what couldn’t be achieved in the past through diplomacy and coercion in the West Bank and Gaza could be accomplished through the application of more force.
That very evening I helped to draft the first of several antiwar appeals, signed on to others and found myself, once again, in the street protesting what shouldn’t be and what it would unleash. I had no inkling that the next twenty-one days would prove so emotionally hellish, intellectually discombobulating, politically stultifying and socially polarizing.
The first hint came in a closed discussion in an avowedly leftist forum. I was taken aback at the extent to which some of my companions justified the attack in light of the ongoing Hamas rockets. The counterargument–that no amount of missiles could excuse the severity of Israel’s assault, which would yield countless civilian casualties–fell on deaf ears. The widespread sense that there was “no choice” has permeated and deeply divided the Israeli peace camp ever since.
No less disturbing were some of the other discussions I had with fellow antiwar activists during those early days. Outraged by the disproportionate Israeli action, they refused to acknowledge that the totally unequal confrontation did not exonerate Hamas from meeting the same human rights standards expected of Israel.
The uneasiness I experienced in those first hours intensified as the fighting progressed and its horrors unfolded. Many Israeli human rights groups with which I am proudly associated as president of the board of the New Israel Fund courageously spoke out against gross infringements of international law. Simultaneously, social change and social justice organizations with which I am identified in the same capacity worked overtime to offer assistance to the over 1 million Israelis repeatedly traumatized by the missile bombardments.
But the media blackout from Gaza ensured that our public was exposed only to lengthy reports of the damage in Israel. They rarely got a glimpse of the terrible human cost of Israel’s action, nor were they allowed to hear the dissenting opinion of those who questioned its prudence. What is truly alarming is that to this very day, the legitimacy of such discussion is debated.
During the three weeks of the war, those few Jewish Israelis brave enough to decry what was happening were vilified or ignored. The human rights community, which coalesced to protest civilian casualties and deplore IDF tactics, saw their petitions denied by the High Court, and endured public reactions ranging from indifference to concerted efforts to discredit their loyalty as well as their evidence. Arab citizens of Israel were harassed and, in some cases, prevented from exercising their elementary right of dissent. As a shamefully jingoistic solidarity set in, they were subjected to unabashedly racist attacks spearheaded by the far right. Israel’s heterogeneous, fractious, argumentative society was muted.
Tragically, voices from abroad made matters worse by magnifying polarization within the country. Israeli progressives have been caught in a tightening vise. On the one hand, the knee-jerk support for government policy expressed by the American Jewish establishment is as distasteful as it is bewildering. It bolsters the militaristic image of the country and opposes the values of peace, pluralism and social justice which underlie the Jewish tradition and universal rights. On the other hand, the viciousness of the criticism of Israel has all too often crossed the thin line between condemning its actions and questioning its existence. I, along with most Israelis, refuse to accede to the demand for my own demise. Together with many others, I had hoped that there would be more backing for the development of a humane Israel free of conflict and occupation. That, I strongly believe, is what being truly pro-Israel is about.
The Gaza offensive has made fulfilling this vision considerably more difficult. But I don’t think that it is hopeless. The Israeli left has emerged from this battle weakened and perhaps dispirited, but hardly irrelevant. The bedrock of a change-oriented and open civil society exists. As President Obama might be the first to point out, real democratic change is cultivated at the grassroots–in neighborhoods and communities that strive for equality and justice and constantly craft ways to realize these goals. I am comforted by the hundreds of forward-looking organizations and their enduring commitment to making a better environment for all Israelis. I am humbled by the impact that human rights and social justice groups have on shaping discourse and policy. And while I am fearful of their ability to survive and prosper with dwindling resources, I am gratified by their resilience and persistence.
For these reasons, despite my rejection of the recent actions of the Israeli government–and my sad understanding of those who condoned it and are distressed by the results–I am convinced that it is vital to try again. I know that the aggressive pursuit of an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general depends on the active engagement of the international community and its determination to bring an end to the occupation. I continue to believe that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a decent life can treat each other with mutual respect and human dignity. If we allow hatred and extremism, injustice and inhumanity, to win, it will not just be our loss; it will affect all freedom-seeking peoples throughout the world.